Giving Young People a Break: David Utter
Submitted by Contributing Authors on July 26, 2008
Section: Transforming Communities and the World
The below interview with David Utter is from Leadership for a Changing World's Leadership Talk online
interview. Leadership for a Changing World "seeks to recognize, strengthen and support leaders, and to
highlight the importance of leadership in improving people's lives." At the time of the interview, David Utter
was an attorney and Co-founder of Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL). From their website, JJPL
seeks to "transform the juvenile justice system into one that builds on the strengths of young people, families,
and communities in order to instill hope and to ensure children are given the greatest opportunities to grow
and thrive." Although this interview is from January 27th, 2006, we chose to reprint it, as the information is
relevant and timeless. David is now working on staff with the Southern Poverty Law Center as the Director of
the Florida Project, establishing another juvenile justice initiative.
Welcome to Leadership Talks with David Utter, Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana.
Q from Minneapolis:
You talk a little about the role of race in your work. How has the issue of race affected how you, as a white
male, do your work in a predominantly African American population?
David Utter: It's affected it greatly. New Orleans is a little different, I hope, than other predominantly
African-American cities in that it's poorer, more disenfranchised, and more dysfunctional than others. And
so I was somewhat shocked at how open and eager my clients, their families, and the community was to our
efforts. There was just this incredible void; the conditions in the system had been known to be appalling for
years before we opened our office, and no one had done anything. The desperation and frustration these
parents felt about the way their children were being treated, I think, removed any concern about the fact
that I'm a white guy. They just wanted somebody to try to protect their children. It was such an awful
situation that it removed some of those barriers.
Secondly, and I think this is critically important, I am not JJPL.
White folks at JJPL, at least before the storm, were a minority. More of our lawyers are African-American or
Latino/a than white. When JJPL is represented in court and in the community, it's not just me, and we try to
provide the opportunity for leadership and leadership development with all of our staff.
Lastly, I feel the tension or the incongruence of being a white male working in social justice with a clientelle
that is mostly folks of color. My goal is to hand off leadership to someone from New Orleans, someone
that's not white. I think that's one of the most important things a leader does, develop new leadership.
Q from Seattle
What do you ultimately hope to achieve through the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana?
David Utter: I want every kid, every young person, who has trouble adjusting or making the transition to
adulthood to get the breaks and second chances I did. Every adult should not be judged by their worst act,
but instead should be given the opportunity to succeed and live life to the fullest as I have. The fact that
the decisions about who gets a break, who serves time in prisons for mistakes, and who gets opportunities
to succeed are based more on a person's skin color and financial background should make us all
ashamed. JJPL's success means kids in Louisiana who break the law are treated the same way I was - with
Q from Washington, DC
How would you describe your leadership style, and how has that made you effective in working within the
David Utter: It's been an evolution. I started out a lawyer and liked working by myself or with a colleague or
two on a case, representing a person or class of prisoners in an effort to extract justice from a system
completely unwilling to give it. I am uncomfortable with the title and feel that the most important thing I can
do is use whatever credibility the title brings for the greatest benefit for my clients, their families, their
community and my colleagues. I constantly learn every day from all of those people and the key for me is
always being willing to admit I am wrong, that my strategy or tactics on any given initiative may be wrong
and that flexibility is necessary to win justice.
Q from Jacksonville, FL
How do you take something so big- closing prisons and prison reform- into something attainable?
David Utter: Small bites, small bites. It's interesting - when we first started our work back in 1998, I came to
it with a prison conditions litigator and really all I was trying to do was improve the conditions in the facilities.
The difference from the traditional prison conditions litigation for us was the very conscious effort to involve
the media and the public. And the thought there was that surely no one could sit by as children were being
mistreated so. And so we filed lawsuits and engaged in a very aggressive media campaign and extracted a
very good settlement in the lawsuit in 2000. And then we began the work of overseeing the implementation
of the settlement.
And what we found from 2000 to 2002 was that big institutions for children hundreds of miles away from
their homes were always going to fail. During that same time period, 2000 to 2002, a parenting community
group that we were working with, Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) was
formed. And it was the combination of the lawyers and advocates visiting the juvenile prisons on a regular
basis and seeing first-hand the failure of the lawsuit to protect children and FFLIC's advocacy had caused
us to say for the first time that these big institutions hundreds of miles away from children's homes didn't
work and needed to close. And I think that this shows the importance of community involvement, but it was
FFLIC, it was the parents that first said, close Tallulah, not fix Tallulah.
David, how did you get into social justice work?
David Utter: I did not graduate from high school, instead I engaged in numerous delinquent acts for which
my current clients are serving time in harsh juvenile prisons. I got my GED, attended junior college on an
athletic scholarship and ended up in Atlanta, hundreds of miles away from my hometown of Miami, for
college. At Emory I was exposed to brilliant people who made a life of studying the South. Unable to go to
graduate school in history due to my tin ear and poor memory for language, I applied to law school at the
last minute and got into 2 - University of Florida and Georgia. I went to Florida because it had a slightly
I went to law school with the same aspirations I had for teaching history. I thought that surely the reason
people in the US allowed systemic racism and class warfare to happen was due to ignorance. I thought
that, with a little effort, I could change the way people looked at race and the history of racism, and its
impact on the South and the US. Surely once people saw the injustice, things would get better.
Once out of law school, my first job was with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. Working for
Steve Bright, suing prisons and jails throughout the South for the deplorable treatment of human beings
who broke the law or were merely accused of breaking the law, I had the best possible first work
experience. Steve was and is a creative genius, and he works harder at fighting injustice than anyone I
know. I went from SCHR to New Orleans and represented poor people facing the death penalty, and then
opened up JJPL in 1998 with Gabriella Celeste and Shannon Wight. Even though we closed 2 brutal youth
prisons, eliminated for profit prisons in LA and made substantial progress, as Katrina exposed to the world,
all of our work explaining the impact of poverty and racism has not done much.
August 29, 2005 showed how little we have progressed in our efforts at alleviating the suffering caused by
the two most serious social problems in the US.
Q: How do you sustain yourself and your staff to prevent burnout?
David Utter: Believe it or not, we had a plan to take better care of ourselves before Katrina and Rita. We
had just completed a lengthy strategic planning process that would have allowed for more time off, more
reflection. Katrina not only caused the plan to be reevaluated, it caused tremendous stress on our
personal lives, and compounded the stress on our clients. We have created a tight community here at JJPL
and get tremendous energy and sustenance from each other. We are back in New Orleans and committed
to fighting for our city, our clients and our community. We will do what it takes, including making sure we are
healthy. Personally I have been blessed to have a happy, bright, energetic 4 yr old who reminds me
everyday what I am fighting for and am supported by a partner who makes me a better person every day.
Both force balance in my life and as JJPL's director I try to ensure all my colleagues create balance in